Board games are often thought of as simply the realm of Christmas arguments or tired and weary games of charades when lost at sea with someone who studied drama at A Level. The evolution of board games into a plethora of titles offering a multitude of experiences is somewhat unknown by the average board gamer, who perhaps only knows of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit and only daring to play something like Ticket to Ride when compelled by a pushy friend or a far too friendly uncle. Whilst games such as Warhammer 40K or Magic: The Gathering will always continue to put off the general public from taking the Risk (harr harr) and venturing deeper, looking underneath the Scrabble tile, there remains the great shame that simply put: So many amazing games exist that if people bothered to look for them they would never pick up a so called 'classic' game ever again. There I said it.
The main barrier to entry for the average board gamer is of course the age old problem of complex rules. A game like Monopoly seems so simple that the average person can grasp how to play within a single turn, as the game uses themes and ideas that are commonplace to most people: Get money, use money to invest, get more money. I don't wish to blow people's minds here but it happens to be the case that most of the weird and wonderful board games out there have rules that might seem harder to grasp because – shockingly – these games were designed with the players in mind.
Have you ever gotten to the end of a game of Monopoly? Or at least have you completed most of the games you have played? For the latter question I can pretty much bet that you have not. The reason behind this is because the game is artificially lengthened by two little things, namely, two little dice. How many times have you been attempting to get a particular property but just can't land on it, well don't feel too bad about it, after all you can't control the way that the dice fall and that fact is what to me makes Monopoly a terrible, terrible game. The main way to get ahead in Monopoly is to obtain a set of complete colours in order to build houses, and eventually hotels, in order to increase the rent owed if a player lands on your property. Leaving this very important part of the game to entirely blind luck means that it is not at all down to skill or good strategy, but simply the whim of the Dice Gods. Games like Chess – which couldn't be further away from Monopoly – have survived the test of time due to their emphasis on individual skill and strategy. If you win a game of Chess, you can be sure that you won because either you were good or your opponent was poor, their hotel on Mayfair did not save their king in the end.
The problem with most commonly found board games is simply put, being able to set up and play a board game easily does not on its own make for a good game. A game of Caverna (a wonderful worker placement game about cave dwelling dwarves) may take a long time to set up, but makes for an interesting and satisfying puzzle. Whilst a game of Cluedo may only take a few minutes to put out on the board, the game quickly becomes dull and repetitive due to the limited amount of possibilities available. The best part of a game for me is the discussion after the game or the reaction of players to a particularly good move, the banter between rounds or the frustration of being caught out or blocked from achieving victory. For my money the commonplace board game simply doesn't offer this experience enough and so aren't worth repeated visits. Take the example of the fairly new game Fog of Love, a game where two players take on the roles of two people just starting a relationship, the game is intricate and full of different twists and turns, each players character has secret desires and personality traits that are hidden from the other player. Maybe one player is looking to settle down and have a family, whilst the other is secretly longing for a life of travel and leisure? Events happen during the game and each player gets to secretly vote on which outcome to take, resulting in different consequences and each players character becoming more or less happy with the state of affairs. Not only does this game work completely as a competitive experience, but it also becomes a strangely intimate and somewhat magical experience as the events that happen in the game easily mirror real life experiences that we have all been a part of. Definitely track this game down if you are looking for an interesting and thought-provoking experience, but coming back to the topic at hand, when did a game of Logo ever make you re-evaluate the way you communicate or compromise with the people you love? Fog of Love stands as a perfect example of how far board games have come in recent decades.
The most popular war game that people have heard of is most likely Risk, and though I still do play Risk from time to time I cannot deny that it pales in comparison to a number of war games that are in no way too complicated for the average person. The board game A Game of Thrones is a wonderful example of how the model of a game like Risk has been improved upon and expanded whilst still being enjoyable. In this game players take on the roles of the great houses from the fantasy universe, attempting to capture enough of the map in order to make a claim on the Iron Throne. Battles are resolved by simply counting up the amount of soldiers, the player with the most amount wins, but a number of cards that the player has in hand can add value to their forces if needed. The game is again based on the skill of the players and the ability to detect when the best time is to strike and when it is best to sit back and recover, unlike the game Risk where once again the inclusion of dice makes the game far too dependent on the outcome of random chance. The theme is certainly a sweetener with this particular title as many people will probably willing to try it out simply because it is linked to the popular T.V. Show, but it can be said that it stands on its own merits regardless.
Moving on to detective games like that of Cluedo, why play against the game itself when one can play against other players? Playing a game of Resistance: Avalon is a tense game of bluffing and deception as a team of good players (Knights of the Round Table) attempt to complete quests by selecting a set amount of players each round for a team that will be going on the mission. Each player at the beginning of the game is given a hidden role, which will determine if they are a good player or if they are working for the enemies of Camelot. When the team is finally chosen (players all vote on a proposed team) the team members all hand in a pass or fail card to the centre of the table, if any of the cards are a fail card the quest is failed. The game is played over five rounds, and the team to first get three victories for their side wins. The real meat of this game is the discussions between players before a team is decided upon, the levels of paranoia build as missions are failed and people fall under scrutiny. For my money, Resistance: Avalon is a perfect example of what a true detective game has the potential to be. Bye bye Cluedo.
Scrabble is a classic game and one that I do still enjoy from time to time, but it would be amiss to say that other, better word games don't exist. My favourite is far and away the game Paperback which puts players in the shoes of struggling writers looking to write the next Harry Potter or something actually half decent. On a players turn they will draw cards from their own personal deck and use them to make words (each card will have a letter on it) the cards may also have special abilities on them that increase score or allow you to reuse other cards on the same turn for example. When a word is scored, the score is used to either purchase new letters from the bank (allowing players to make different words next time) or purchasing “books” that give the player victory points and can be used as wild cards when making words. If the word created was long enough, the player is also awarded a “common” letter from the pool that also gives victory points. The aim of the game is to accumulate enough victory points to beat your opponent at the end of the game, which ends when enough books have been purchased or when the “common” letters have all been claimed. I feel that this game is a better word game than Scrabble because it encourages making longer and more interesting words, rather than getting a word like 'ox' or 'zoo' onto a triple word score, the game instead encourages creativity and rewards a good vocabulary.
Finally, let us tackle the juggernaut that is Monopoly. There are thousands of games that exist currently that better provide an economic experience than the old favourite. One of my favourites at the moment is the game Briefcase which is an economic deck builder where players take on the role of entrepreneurs taking their first steps into business. Players complete actions by playing cards out of their hand, which they draw from their own personal deck on each subsequent turn. Actions allow players to buy property, or to activate property already owned in order to benefit from their completion. Buildings give the player resources upon being activated or allow the player to perform special actions. Resources (paper, steel, concrete and electricity) allow players to buy or activate property (in addition to being played with a buy or activate card from their hand). The aim of the game is accumulate enough property to hit the pre-set target of victory points. The game is quick, straightforward and relies on players finding the quickest way to build a good economic engine. Whereas Monopoly focuses on the luck of the dice, Briefcase commands players to make the best out of a bad situation, as even if you didn't draw the card you needed from your deck, you will always be able to do something that will help you down the line.
In short, board games have come a long way since the classics were the only choices that were available. Where the classics have stagnated and not changed beyond recognising the popularity of Game of Thrones or Adventure Time new board games have pushed the limits of what social gaming is able to achieve and then pushed on further. So the next time you are with a group of friends and are looking to play a game of something, look further than Park Lane, don't rush for the continent bonus and don't always suspect Colonel Mustard, play something a little different. You owe it to your table.